Now that the Recording Academy has slapped itself on the back for awarding Album of the Year to the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou, it’s time to talk turkey about this thing called “traditional” music. First of all, let’s be clear about Alison Krauss: she’s no more bluegrass than Canadian crooner Anne Murray. Talented though she is, Krauss is a pop artist—a little bit country—who happens to employ stringed instruments typically associated with bluegrass music. It tickles this reviewer to hear people clamor over Alison Krauss, or the O Brother soundtrack, as if they’ve struck the motherlode of “traditional” American music. Of all the contemporary artists to appear on the O Brother collection, only Dr. Ralph Stanley is authentically archaic (or, to quote the film, “he’s bona fide!”) His work reflects a lifestyle most modern Americans only read about in historical fiction. The rest of the performers on the soundtrack give the people what they want to hear—polished, palatable renditions of old songs that stir up pastoral images of a romanticized past.
The truth is that most Americans don’t have an ear for real old-time music. The traditional music of our forebears was harsh, modal, and nasal. It’s an uneasy blend of British balladry, Scots-Irish dance tunes, and African American corn-shucking songs, all dealing with real, back-breaking hardships. Professional musicians approach this body of material and give it their most studied, Nashville twang. But modal singing is flat and sharp in response to death, disillusion, and religious ecstasy. Mainstream ears cringe at field recordings of genuine old-time music while, as William Hogeland points out in his essay “Cornbread When I’m Hungry” (Atlantic Monthly, November 1998), “pop critics of today find it thrillingly grotesque”. The Coen Brothers embellished every stereotype of the Depression era, and the masses have responded in kind. The movie gives us a handle on all that: America has progressed beyond the “grotesque” days of Jim Crow and rationing, and we can, at a safe and sanitized distance, relish our roots music. Inevitably the wheels will fall off the “traditional” music bandwagon, and the majority of listeners will recede back into pop radio junk food.
Inexplicable was the strange absence of the banjo from the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack. It has been argued that the banjo is the only truly American instrument. Well, that’s only partly true. The gourd banjer played by African slaves was a slight improvement over the banjar that evolved between Arabia and West Africa, but it was in the United States that this instrument took on its present form and aesthetic. Yet not one song from O Brother prominently features a banjo. Yes, it appears as a relatively quiet background instrument on a couple of tracks, but how can we justify Ralph Stanley not cutting loose with his appropriate instrumental “Hard Times”? He was relegated to rendering his a cappella “O Death”, which was perversely integrated into a Ku Klux Klan rally. By ignoring banjo music, O Brother, Where Art Thou came up short as a monument to old-time music. I hope some of the herd will pause to investigate this unique instrument before returning to their pabulum. The banjo is one of the most versatile musical instruments in the world, serving both as a vehicle for innovation and a bulwark of traditionalism.
In discussing the banjo, I want to drop four names that encompass the development of the instrument in American music: Odell Thompson, Wade Ward, Earl Scruggs, and Bela Fleck. The first two names are probably unknown to all but the most ardent fans of old-time music. The latter are familiar names even to the disinterested. This dichotomy between anonymity and fame underscores the difference between truly traditional American music and pop music performed on a traditional instrument.
Until his untimely death in an vehicle accident in 1996, Odell Thompson was our last link to the most original form of banjo playing on this continent—the African American tradition. Together with his fiddling brother Joe, Odell Thompson played white square dances and black frolics for nearly six decades. Thompson’s playing typified the way of all early African Americans, a downs-stroking pattern called “frailing” or “clawhammer.” It is next to impossible to adequately explain the right-hand technique used in this style. The frailing hand is held in roughly the same way one would hold a microphone. The picking pattern involves striking a melody note with either the index or middle finger on the first beat, brushing the bottom two or three strings on the second beat, then thumping the top drone string with the thumb after second and fourth beats of the measure. Clear as mud? Playing in this style is such a matter of nuance that it can take months or even years to properly master it. And it looks so deceptively simple. Add to that Thompson’s ability to slur and choke notes with his left hand (enhanced by his fretless fingerboard) and you have the makings of a sound that’s both ancient and intricate. In 1999 Rounder Records released Joe Thompson’s Family Tradition which features a few of the last sessions that Odell played. Most noteworthy is his sliding, raucous performance on “Black Eyed Daisy.” Thompson’s plunky banjo has a brown dirt grittiness that’s seldom replicated in this age.
The late Wade Ward of Independence, Virginia was among the greatest clawhammer players of the Southern Appalachian region. Long after African Americans gave up the banjo and turned to other modes of expression, isolated mountaineers took up the instrument and modified the frailing technique to accompany more complex fiddle tunes. A genuine hillbilly string band consisted of nothing more than fiddle and banjo, and Ward was a master of both. But he took clawhammer banjo to new heights of difficulty with shrugging humility. Ward was featured on the marvelous compilation by folklorist John Cohen entitled High Atmosphere: Ballads and Banjo Tunes from Virginia and North Carolina (also on Rounder, re-released in 1995). Between ripping through the pieces “Half Shaved” and “Shady Grove” Ward describes how the banjo takes on an “atmosphere” based on its tuning. There are close to 200 different tunings that can applied to the clawhammer style, and each brings its own ambiance to particular songs. Dwight Diller, a disciple of Ward’s and now a clawhammer guru in his his own right, speaks of a “cultural message” and the player’s “own story” that seeps through multiplicity of atmospheres attained by the clawhammer banjo. That message is often private or localized at best. The clawhammer purist usually plays for his own meditation, and the “story” passes to immediate family and friends by osmosis.
The last bona fide clawhammer player in a popular bluegrass band was Dave “Stringbean” Akeman (later of Hee Haw fame), who worked a brief stint with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. He was supplanted by an upstart from Boing Springs, North Carolina named Earl Scruggs. What Scruggs brought to banjo was a “little something extra”, that being his middle finger. With finger picks, Scruggs modified an earlier three-finger technique developed by fellow Carolinian Charlie Poole, and thus was born the wildly popular “Scruggs-style” with its elaborate forward and backward rolls. From that point forward practically all bluegrass players adopted this new approach. Folks must realize that in both technique and inspiration Scruggs-style was a far cry from the traditional method of banjo picking. In fact, it can be said with a straight face that Earl Scruggs is the father of industrial music, because his home environment had everything to do with his sound. Consider this: when listening to Scruggs’s signature piece “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, don’t fantasize about the mist-shrouded ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains; instead, imagine the deafening cacophony of spinning and weaving machines inside a textile mill. The sharply metallic, clanky syncopation of Scruggs’ banjo reflected the industrial culture in which he grew up, worked, and learned to play music. It was Flatt & Scruggs’s “Ballad of Jed Clampett” that caught the ear of a young Bela Fleck in the ‘60s. The “Scruggs-style” lent itself easily to the cool jazz licks that Fleck later developed. It’s doubtful that if Fleck had been introduced to Wade Ward as a kid we would have gotten quite the same result. There was something novel yet urbane in Scruggs’ playing that inspired the “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo.”
Consequently, a friendly rivalry has developed over the years between those loyal to the old-fashioned clawhammer style and devotees of Scruggs’s newfangled roll. The civil war has even invaded my home. We’re able to afford only one banjo, which my wife and I share. My roots are deep in the Blue Ridge mountains; my wife was raised in a blue collar neighborhood on the west side of Charlotte. When I pick up the banjo, I frail it with bare fingers; when it’s her turn, she pulls out her tablature book, slips on her fingerpicks, and sets to rolling. Consequently, our tastes and repertoires differ somewhat. But there’s one point of intersection where a battleground is established. It’s the old classic “Cripple Creek”—the only tune we both play from our respective styles. What I have found in frailing is that the mood—or “atmosphere”—of a song can be affected by the speed and touch. If I play “Cripple Creek” with slow, heavy strokes the song takes on an unexpected sadness; fast and light, and the kids are up jumping around. My wife will watch me, arms crossed, with a perplexed look on her face. At times she nearly stands on her head trying to figure out exactly what I’m doing with my right hand. It’s mystifying that such a seemingly simple stroke can generate so many notes. But in the long run it is she who is going to dazzle listeners with her catchy, snappy playing. When you play Scruggs-style, the banjo sounds like the most exuberant instrument in the world.
That’s alright. There’s something about the clawhammer style that is pure and essential. It is individualistic, defiant, and separate from a world that threatens to embed GPS computer chips under your skin. When you get into it, you just know in your gut that this kind of music could survive a nuclear holocaust. Well, it will certainly hang around long after fervor over O Brother, Where Art Thou has dissipated.